Jazz musician of the century? Best
jazz recordings of the past 100 years? Forget it...I have enough trouble deciding what
Im going to play during my weekly radio show, let alone trying to make such weighty
assessments regarding this multifarious art form! And yet, the annual ritual of compiling
a list of my favorite releases continues to hold special appeal for me. Perhaps its
because this presents the opportunity to revisit lots of wonderful music; perhaps
its the fact that the listening process always restores my faith in the awesome
creative powers of sonic improvisation.
Whatever the reasons, I find myself marveling again and again at the
ability of contemporary artists to extend the vocabulary and techniques of past masters.
Many of my current favorites include loving tributes to the music of deceased jazz giants
like Ellington, Miles, Monk and Mingus. The individuals performing these homages,
however, are sculpting something very new out of the raw materials theyve mined. For
instance, Cassandra Wilsons affection for the music of a certain Mr. Davis is
apparent all through Traveling Miles, but the results are pure Cassandra; her
"Run the VooDoo Down" is clearly of 1999 vintageno one could possibly
mistake it for the 1969 original. The latest batch of young lions should take a lesson or
two from this approach. Why, even ol Wynton "keeper of the tradition
torch" Marsalis seems to have finally gotten the message, as evidenced on his
"swingin into the 21st" torrent of releases, as if anyone has the time or
energy to keep up with his prolific output.
The following list represents the jazz recordings which most impressed
me during the past 12 months. I do not claim they are "the best" of the year,
but I humbly implore open-minded listeners to tune in WWUH on January 10, from 9
a.m.-noon, for a backward glance at Out Here & Beyonds 1999 favorites.
The releases are arranged in alphabetical order, not according to their perceived merits.
Chick Corea & Origin: Change Stretch Records
Greater Hartford jazz listeners have been following this group closely
since its inception, due to the inclusion of Hartt School instructor Steve Davis. The
trombone meister is given ample space to shine here, but the ensemble interaction
Corea coaxes forth from his sextet is what makes Change such a powerful album. It
certainly helps to have onboard two fine multi-instrumentalists, Steve Wilson and Bob
Sheppard, who color the proceedings with a multitude of reed and flute pairings. Add to
this mix Coreas distinctive writing and piano work, and Change is likely to
become a constant on your disc player.
James Emery Septet: Spectral Domains ENJA Records
Acoustic guitarist Emery, founding member of the groundbreaking
String Trio of New York, has always been too restless a performer and composer to confine
himself to any one ensemble or musical genre. Therefore, he has often collaborated with
other barrier-breaking musicians, such as Henry Threadgill and Steve Reich.
While he has made numerous recordings in the past under his own name,
Emerys latest strikes this listener as his most satisfying work to date. Having
augmented the quartet from his first ENJA release (reedman Marty Ehrlich, bassist Michael
Formanek, drummer Gerry Hemingway) with three more forward-thinking improvisers (violinist
Mark Feldman, sax & clarinet player Chris Speed, percussionist Kevin Norton), the
leader is able to explore a wider range of textures and styles than ever before. From
cutting-edge freeplay to astonishingly unique arrangements of Thelonious Monk and Charles
Mingus compositions, Emery-and-company provide a thrilling glimpse into musical
possibilities for the new century.
Erick Friedlander: Topaz SIAM Records
No question about it, Mr. Friedlander ranks among the top improvising
cellists on the current jazz scene. Topaz also demonstrates his impressive skills
as a composer and bandleader. Working with a quartet that includes the adventurous alto
sax stylist Andy Laster, as well as brothers Stomu and Satoshi Takeishi, on electric bass
and percussion, respectively, the cellist offers up a delightfully quirky 10-pack of
tunes, including some unlikely covers of Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy material. The
instrumentation may be unusual, but the foursome is completely in synch aesthetically. As
a result, their music sounds fresh, yet approachable. Its not at all pretentious,
nor does it ever descend into schmaltziness, a fate which seems to befall many a
string-oriented jazz project.
(A complete review of Topaz appears in the May/June 1999 WWUH program guide.)
Branford Marsalis Quartet: Requiem Columbia Records
This album is presumably called Requiem because pianist Kenny
Kirkland died shortly after the initial recording sessions. In fact, according to
Branford, most of the tunes are first takes, and the band returned to the studios after
Kirklands passing "to finish, but realized we had to leave it the way it
A wise choice...the fact is, these eight pieces bristle with the
incomparable energy exuded by improvisers who are absolutely dedicated to their
art--requiring instrumental virtuosity, careful listening, emotional involvement and trust
in the Muse. Whether the band is laying down the New Orleans groove of "16th"
St. Baptist Church," or whispering the stark beauty of "A Thousand
Autumns," the players mesmerize us with their heartfelt story-songs. And Branford, in
the wake of his puzzling "Tonight Show" stint, has never sounded better.
Myra Melford (& The Same River, Twice): Above Blue Arabesque Recordings
Above Blue Casserole
Ingredients: Myra Melford (piano, compositions) / Dave Douglas (trumpet) / Chris Speed
(tenor sax, clarinet) / Erik Friedlander (cello) / Michael Sarin (drums)
Take one part Cecil Taylor (c.1966); apply
liberal dose of the blues, Balkan folk music, contemporary European classical music;
sprinkle lightly with Don Pullen and Marilyn Crispell. Optional: Add a pinch or two of any
Sousa march. Blend thoroughly in CD player, adjusting volume accordingly.
Gradually bring to boil, then turn down heat. Allow to simmer approx.
12 minutes with "Here Is Only Moment" and "Be Melting Snow." Return to
boil, "Through Storms Embrace," stirring randomly and often. Do not
Allow to cool 6 minutes, "Still in Afters Shadow."
Garnish with "A White Flower," if desired.
Baking time: 66 minutes, 10 seconds. Serves eight titles.
Mingus Big Band: Blues & Politics Dreyfus Music
Dont dare call this a ghost band, even if Blues &
Politics opens with the unmistakable voice of Charles Mingus intoning "It Was a
Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama," while his bass echoes the cry for civil rights. Yes,
its true that Sue Mingus, Charles widow, remains the driving force behind the
MBB, and that his son Eric, clearly inspired by Charles flare for the dramatic,
narrates a couple pieces with the group here.
But even a cursory listen will reveal that this ensemble is able to
incorporate new ideas into the already-huge Mingus legacy. Thanks to the outstanding
arranging talents of Sy Johnson and Mike Mossman, and to the instrumental firepower of
players like John Stubblefield, Bobby Watson and Randy Brecker, the MBB is a living,
breathing entity, not a bunch of has-beens and yet-to-be-s, sight-reading tattered charts
of yester-year. Blues & Politics ups the temperature even more by bringing to
the forefront the incendiary socio-political themes so important to much of Mingus
music...and bringing it all back home with the gutbucket swagger of 12-bar progressions.
Hugh Ragin: An Afternoon in Harlem Justin Time Records
For two decades, Hugh Ragin made his mark as a sideman in the
envelope-pushing bands of Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, among others. With An
Afternoon in Harlem, the trumpeter blasts into the limelight with seven remarkable
originals, accompanied by the power trio of Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid and Bruce Cox.
Veteran free-thinkers Andrew Cyrille (drums) and David Murray (bass clarinet) each make
guest appearances; Murray is at his blazing-hot best on "When Sun Ra Gets Blue,"
a nineteen minute tour-de-force inspired by Ragins two-night gig with the
Saturnians Arkestra on Labor Day weekend 1987. This work also features a
breathtaking performance by poet Amiri Baraka, who reads, chants and shouts his
"Message from Sun Ra," coaxing his colleagues into some of the most intense free
improvisation Ive heard on disc in recent years.
By contrast, the title track is a sunny straightahead swing number.
Elsewhere, Ragins suitelike pieces combine freedom and structure, melodious balladry
and driving postbop. This just may be the sleeper of the year, well worth hunting for...or
seeking out at www.Justin.time.com..
Rhythm & Brass: More Money Jingle...Ellington Explorations Koch
Who would have guessed that, in a year filled with umpteen recorded
Duke Ellington centennial homages, one of the most enjoyable of the bunch would come
from an offshoot of the Dallas Brass, performed by players barely known in jazz circles,
and featuring very little piano work?
Well, here it is, in all its twisted glory! I suspect the Maestro would
have enjoyed the way these gentlemen have permutated this bakers dozen of
mostly-obscure "Dukompositions," injecting some with contemporary beats, others
with spoken narrative from his autobiography, still others with a clever mix of old and
new stylistic turns. Beyond category, you might say. (A complete review of More Money
Jungle appears in the July/August 1999 WWUH program guide.)
Sam Rivers Rivbea All-Star Orchestra: Inspiration RCA
Its been noted that this album is Rivers first for a
major label in 25 years...and apparently, without the support of producer/saxophonist
Steve Coleman, it wouldnt have even made it to the RCA drawing board. So hats off to
Steve for his kind deed (and inspired improvising)! More importantly, let us celebrate
this brilliant player/theoretician, all-but-forgotten by most jazz fans, but every bit as
active and important to the music at 69 as he was in his Blue Note heyday 35 years ago.
Not a lot of folks recall his stints with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie;
obviously, he is highly regarded by his fellow musicians, if not by the general public.
The cast assembled for this project is actually worthy of the
"all-star" adjective: Chico Freeman, Hamiet Bluiett, Ray Anderson and Bob
Stewart are but a few of the contributors worthy of mention. The seven pieces on this
70-minute program are all Rivers originals, and represent some of the best-known work from
his lengthy, many-faceted careerfrom "Beatrice," a gorgeous paean for his
wife, to "Whirlwind," the ferocious big-band approximation of a raging storm.
Cassandra Wilson: Traveling Miles Blue Note
Wilson has been testing the limits of the music called
"jazz" for the better part of a decade, yet just when you start questioning how
far she can safely stray ("Last Train to Clarksville"? Hmmm...), she comes up
with something amazing, something like Traveling Miles, which is so rooted in the
jazz tradition, and yet which still defies pigeonholing.
If you doubt her jazz credentials, however, spin "Seven
Steps," her vocal reworking of the familiar Victor Feldman/Miles Davis piece. Catch
the irresistible swing of Regina Carters violin, in tandem with young vibesman
Stefon Harris (both of whom issued strong recordings themselves last year), and hear how
effortlessly Wilson conveys her message. Equally compelling is her rendering of "Blue
in Green," here called "Sky and Sea." Pat Methenys classical guitar
and Dave Hollands bass add just the right touch behind Wilsons wistful
Purists will balk at folksy, pop-oriented fare like "Right Here, Right Now"
and "When the Sun Goes Down," neither of which demonstrates the slightest
connection to Miles. For that matter, this unusual tribute album includes only a snippet
of trumpet (cornet, actually); even so, the clever songstress manages to successfully
honor a legendary hornman, while retaining her own distinct musical personality.
Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2000